That we should still use the great forests of the world to disseminate our wisdom in the age of the internet is somehow appropriate, our love of books linking us to the prehistorical age of dinosaurs and pterodactyls, when the planet really was green.
I don't care if the books are "foxed" – if pages are brown-stained by the damp of ages – and that's just as well because Beirut is a dirty city, and in my seafront apartment, a mixture of exhaust fumes, industrial grime and the damp of the Mediterranean "foxes" even my newest books within a year. I once thought of moving them to Europe, then realised that their deterioration was part of their story, that they would always wear their history of Lebanon on their covers.
That's one reason why I love the old second-hand bookshop that Habib Aboujaudeh runs on Bliss Street. It's seen hard times – just like 75-year-old Habib. During the civil war, thieves stole thousands of pounds' worth of books from his store in west Beirut. "I lived in Ashrafieh in the east and my books were being sold on the streets of Hamra," he tells me. "I don't know why they took them. They can't have made much money." In Khayat's Bookshop – Habib inherited the name of previous owners – the smell of wood mixes with the odour of old stones. The store was once stables for the horses of the American University of Beirut, which still stands across the road, an academy founded by a 19th-century Quaker called Bliss.
Unlike Lebanon, Habib's shop is a cocktail of religions and literary style. There are Bibles and treatises on Islamic jurisprudence, tawdry romances from the 1950s, science lectures and the works of Ayatollah Khomeini and children's books and postcards of pre-war Beirut in which large American cars motor past 1930s hotels. Here you can find Alistair MacLean's Guns of Navarone in French, and Albert Vulliez's account of Churchill's destruction of the Vichy French fleet in Mers el-Kébir on 3 July 1940. "A hateful decision," Churchill called it in his own history of the Second World War (also in Habib's shop), "the most unnatural and painful in which I have ever been concerned."
by Rober Fisk-read more